Endings to stories are every bit as important as their beginnings. I’ve heard, on at least one occasion, someone tell me to write the ending of a story first. I rarely do that, but I can often picture the ending in my head, or at least the climax. It should be an emotionally satisfying experience, even if it isn’t a happy one. The ending of The Dark Knight, for example, is far from happy – many important characters are dead, Batman’s on the run from the law, and the Joker did, in fact, get away, or at least lived. But it’s emotionally satisfying. Our hero did, in fact, triumph, even if it was a Pyrrhic victory, and will keep fighting the best way he knows how. Not happy, but one can set their teeth and nod in agreement with it.
I bring this up because I recently went through two ending experiences in video games. I finished Silent Hill 2 for the first time, and I downloaded the Extended Edition DLC for Mass Effect 3. Both games have multiple endings, determined by player choice, and the experience of reaching those endings says a lot about storytelling in general, and its connection to gameplay in particular.
For the record, I now understand why people love Silent Hill 2 so much. The game is steeped in a tense, foreboding atmosphere that draws you into its dark, bleak world and refuses to let go of you. The sound design is excellent and the visuals sufficiently creepifying, even if the capacities of the PlayStation 2 were somewhat limited. The HD Collection doesn’t do a whole lot with the graphics, from what I understand, but the important thing is that James Sunderland is still wonderfully neurotic, incredibly determined, and deeply sympathetic, quickly becoming one of my favorite video game protagonists. I felt invested in seeing his journey through to the end.
Silent Hill 2, like many games, has multiple endings, and the three available to the player at the conclusion of the first run all make sense, based on the choices the player makes. The game examines how you behave, how you treat the NPCs around you, and what you do with the things you find. It makes sense of the seemingly random things you may do as a player, and produces the ending you think you deserve. It’s an impressive feat for a game from the previous generation, and a great example of an ending to a story being emotionally satisfying while not necessarily being happy.
As for Mass Effect, well… I went off on a bit of a rant on the endings of the final game of the trilogy before. I won’t go into detail as to how the new endings made me feel, emotionally, especially since Susan Arendt has already done just that. Swap a couple names in the very last sequence and you have my feelings on it. In light of Silent Hill 2, though, I can tell you why the “Extended” endings work where the originals don’t.
First of all, while some of the dialog still feels a bit stretched, better explanations of the Reapers, the Crucible, and our choices are given. None of it feels too stilted, and Shepard, bless his or her heart, often asks questions in the very same way we do. There’s also the fact that we are given the option to straight-up refuse to be involved in the final decision. If you think the Starchild is a pile of bullshit, you can say so. Granted, it comes off a bit as Shepard being a petulant child, but that’s totally not a reflection on the attitude of entitled gamers, right?
On closer examination and with these better explanations, it becomes more clear to me that the endings of Mass Effect 3 are, in fact, the culmination of our choices rather than the death of them. It was difficult to realize this when the explanation was so truncated previously; now, as there is back-and-forth, there’s more time to think, to reflect, and to choose. As the Starkid explained synthesis and the evolution of life, conveniently leaving out how magically rewriting DNA was supposed to work, it occurred to me that this was what Shepard had been striving for all along. In my play-through, time and again, Shepard chose the way of peace: sparing the Rachni queen, convincing Garrus not to shoot Sidonis, trying to warn the Batarians in Arrival, getting the Geth and Quarians to lay down arms… The final sequence is now a conversation, rather than a glorified menu of choices, in which Shepard reflects on all that’s come before, and when the battered soldier starts to move, it’s for good reason rather than just to end things.
In addition to making the final choices feel like they matter, the Extended Edition also makes the endings more personal, more accessible. To quote Susan, “Saving the universe is great and all, but it’s too huge a concept to really feel particularly connected to.” My favorite moments in Mass Effect 3 were deeply personal ones, from the fates of Mordin and Thane to the back-and-forth between Shepard and Tali on Rannoch. Making the endings grand and sweeping but ambiguous and impersonal was a misstep, one which has now been corrected. From the look on Kaiden’s face when Shepard tells him “I want to be sure someone survives this,” to that last moment at the memorial wall, we feel more invested in what’s happened. We see characters we’ve come to care about dealing with the monumental decision we’ve made. And, perhaps most importantly, we get the chance to say good-bye.
A similar moment comes in Silent Hill 2, as we hear Mary read her letter to James. Be it uplifting or tragic, the end result is an understanding of the choices made and an opportunity to bid the characters farewell. As in Mass Effect, the conclusion should and does feel personal. I hesitate to use the word “logical” when we’re talking about a psychological survival horror piece and a work of space opera that works on what boils down to magic, but the choices made and the endings that result from those choices do have make logical sense, and that goes a long way in giving them weight and making them complete.
A writer should never underestimate an audience. Allowing an audience to speculate on the unknown and draw their own conclusions is all well and good. It’s one thing to leave an ending open to interpretation; it’s quite another to simply cut things short. We can imagine all sorts of endings and fill in blanks any way we like, and while there’s great freedom in that, too many blanks can give the impression that the creators simply didn’t care enough, or didn’t know themselves. Seeing how the creators end things can be interpreted as spoon-feeding information to the audience, but it also allows for permutations we may not have anticipated. While you should never underestimate your audience, you should also never be afraid to definitively end your story where it should logically end. You don’t necessarily have to tie up all your loose ends in neat little bows (I’m looking at you, Legend of Korra) and you don’t have to chop up the ending into quick cuts to make a statement of some kind (*cough* 2001 *cough*). Let the characters make their choices. Let the audience understand those choices. Make that connection between the two, and the ending of your story will be far more satisfying.
You may now deposit your hate mail telling me how horrible I am for daring to compare Mass Effect 3 to Silent Hill 2.